Another regular season has come and gone for the UCSB men’s tennis team, which finished 8-12 on the season, including 3-2 in conference. As the team’s veterans know, and as younger players will soon find out, the regular season has always been a warm-up for the Big West Championships. This Friday, the #4 seed Gauchos will take on #5 seed UC Davis to begin the journey to defend their Big West title for the fourth year in a row.
In past seasons, the Gauchos have typically had the luxury of a first round bye, playing from the first seed. This year, they play a match on Friday at 2 p.m. and continue with 9 a.m. matches over the weekend, as long as they keep winning. According to Head Coach Marty Davis, the tightly spaced matches add another element to the already difficult conditions in Indian Wells, where the tournament takes place.
“We’ve always enjoyed a first round bye. This is the first year we’re forced to play on Friday; that obviously makes it more difficult,” Davis said. “There’s a short turnaround from playing on Friday to playing early morning Saturday, and that adds an extra challenge for sure.”
Earlier this season, UCSB traveled to Davis and crushed the Aggies 5-2 on their home court. Assuming the Gauchos take that match, they play first seed Pacific on Saturday morning, whom they defeated on the road as well in late March. For junior Scott Hohenstein, having beaten both opponents adds a mental edge heading into the tournament.
“[Beating both teams] gives us a lot of confidence,” Hohenstein said. “Everyone’s stoked with how the seeding turned out. But we also don’t want to get overconfident because that can come back and bite you.”
But as Hohenstein knows, and Davis emphasized, regular season results are not always a good prediction for the tournament matches.
“The Big West Tournament is so hard because it’s so hot out there, and it’s a grind because if you win you just have another match the next day,” Hohenstein said. “It’s just a different story and everyone comes out with a whole different mindset. People know you can play shitty in the regular season and still win.”
Junior captain Josh Finkelstein, a three-year veteran, agreed that at this point in the season, everything else just goes out the window.
“The seedings really don’t matter that much,” Finkelstein said. “Obviously, it would’ve been nice to have the first round bye, but we just have to look at it like a practice the day before the match.”
With the single elimination format, weekend temperatures creeping into the 90s, and an automatic place in the NCAA tournament for the tournament winner, all six Big West teams have high expectations. The Gauchos are no different and are expecting nothing less than an all-out war.
“There’s going to be a lot more pressure,” Finkelstein said. “Everyone knows that if we lose, our season’s over. It’s going to be a battle out there.”
To come out on top, the team will need to take the doubles point, something that Davis has been preaching all season. That would give the team a 1-0 lead before going into the six singles matches, a huge mental advantage.
“I really think if we win the doubles point we’re going to win these matches,” Davis said. “On paper, we’re figuring that most of these are 4-3 matches, so the doubles point, I think, is going to be critical.”
In preparation for what is expected to be scorching heat, one of the team’s focuses has been on conditioning. It is no accident that UCSB is in the best shape of the season right now, and has saved their best game for the tournament.
“We focus on the Big West Tournament all season long. It’s by design,” Davis said. “We have a very tough schedule and we’re going to take some losses but we learn a lot. Like with fitness, everything’s geared for the championships, so it’s not a surprise we’re playing the best tennis now.”
That is just what it is going to take if the Gauchos want to defend their conference crown, going up against one of the toughest Big West conferences in recent memory. UCSB takes on UC Davis Friday at 3 p.m., and continues on both Saturday and Sunday morning at 9 a.m. if they keep winning.